Thursday, May 17, 2012

Overcoming the American Undercaste

I caught up with the rather ragged band of walkers in front of a McDonalds in the Chicago suburb of Homewood. I learned that the stop was unplanned—the planned rest stop was at a Walmart a mile further south—but kids stopped to use the public bathroom anyway. It was starting to get chilly, so I was glad that I had brought my fleece jacket. Sunset was less than 2 hours away, and it was going to get colder before I left.

One of the marchers receives treatment for
 foot blisters.
The procession had started the previous day, March 30, in the Little Village neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. They had garnered some media attention at a press conference where they decried current immigration enforcement practices and demanded that the construction of a new detention center in Crete, Illinois halt. Their procession wouldn’t stop until April 1 at the gates of the construction site, about 30 miles away. I walked with them for only a few hours on Saturday, so I didn’t have the bleeding blisters that I saw on some of the walkers.

It is a difficult but perhaps also a hopeful time for immigrants and their allies. The Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other American executive, but opponents still claim that current federal law is soft on illegal immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, called SB1070, and we should know their decision in June. A little ironically, we have also learned that a majority of babies born in the United States today are non-white, with Latinos coming in second after the white plurality.

I feel that we as a country are coming to a tipping point. With Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, more and more people are becoming aware of enforcement policies that are harming people of color. Public outcry is growing against the privatization of prisons and detention centers, like the one that may still be built in Crete, IL. Awareness of economic disparities is at a generational high due to the continued effects of the Great Recession and the Occupy movement.

Picture drawn by child of a deported immigrant, exhibited at
"Locked Out" conference at University of Illinois-Chicago
on April 5.
In my work with the Interfaith Worker Justice Worker CenterNetwork, worker advocates constantly find that one of workers’ greatest fears is that if they report abuses on the job, they will be fired, deported, and separated from their families. Many employers intentionally hire undocumented workers for the reason that they will not complain when they are paid well below minimum wage, not receive overtime pay, or report injuries that would require workers’ compensation. It is often a business decision that helps the company’s bottom line but keeps workers in a distinct undercaste.

This undercaste is growing in the United States. Not only does it include undocumented immigrants, but African Americans who are targeted by unnecessary drug laws and enforcement are perpetually funneled there as well. Like undocumented immigrants, convicted felons also must endure all sorts of abuses at work because of legal discriminatory employment practices. That is to say, convicted felons will take and keep jobs where they are regularly underpaid and abused because they still have to pay their bills.

How can people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who weekly and sometimes daily confess their dependence on divine grace, support this 21st century caste system? Is there such a profound disconnect between our pews and the prisons where societal debtors are kept out of view? Are we so deluded in our visions of the American Dream that we fall into the trap of the goats of Matthew 25?

Sisters and brother, we must open our eyes. Look around and you’ll see groups like the walkers who held mass at the gates of the Crete detention center. That group included students, Teamsters, an Episcopal priest, a few anarchists, and members of local congregations. What keeps us from walking with them?

In the words of the prophet Isaiah and as Jesus of Nazareth repeated, this is the year of the Lord’s favor. Let us proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). In the Spirit of the Easter resurrection and the upcoming Pentecost, let us move our deadened feet and open our dumb mouths.

Walkers going south on Halsted Street.

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